Coup Attempt in Washington: A European Mirror on Our Recent Constitutional Crisis

Coup Attempt in Washington: A European Mirror on Our Recent Constitutional Crisis

by Peter Merkl


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By viewing the entire Clinton scandal through the eyes of European journalists, Merkl uncovers the damage done to our Constitution, our political system, and our role of world leadership.

This is an exploration, with hundreds of appropriate quotes from French, British, German, Italian and other newspapers, on how differently European journalists interpreted our attempt to impeach and remove our twice-elected president.This is not an effort to defend President Clinton. Contrary to what our media told us, Europeans did not just snicker about our attitudes to sex scandals—they did little of that—but they critically and knowledgeably examined our obvious abuses of American legal procedures and concepts (e.g. perjury) and relevant constitutional clauses. They saw this as a five-year vendetta culminating in a quasi-constitutional coup attempt, not just the pursuit of a scandal, and believed an important part of our media was involved in the "vast rightwing conspiracy" to overthrow Clinton. Finally, and again unlike our media, they thought that this action damaged our constitutional system and would have destroyed it, had the coup succeeded.

About the Author:
PETER MERKL is Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has published numerous books and articles on politics. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312238315
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication date: 01/28/2001
Edition description: REV
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.68(h) x 1.26(d)

About the Author

Peter Merkl is professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has published numerous books and articles on politics. His most recent book isThe Federal Republic of Germany at Fifty.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2:

This does . . . begin to take on the appearance of a coup[d'état]. -Representative John Conyers, House Judiciary Committee (December 12, 1998)

I believe [by not resigning] I defended the Constitution against a serious threat. I am sorry I did something wrong [the Lewinsky affair] that gave them the excuse to really go overboard. -President Bill Clinton, interview on the Lehrer Newshour (January 26, 2000)

It was not so long ago that Europeans and the rest of the world deeply admired American democracy and its venerable Constitution. Eastern Europeans and Russians after the fall of communism in 1990-1991, in particular, paid American institutions and the rule of law the sincerest form of compliment, namely extensive efforts to import and imitate parts of them. After our triumph in World War II, Western Europeans had also embarked on a long era when our democratic institutions and processes were widely considered the standard against which to measure their own efforts to institute democratic government, even though their governmental structures were, of course, beholden to their respective French, German, and Italian traditions. This pattern of European respect clearly suffered a major lapse with the distribution of the Starr Report and the videotape of the president's grand jury testimony of August 17, 1998 on orders of the House of Representatives. In the conservative French daily Le Figaro, Pierre Rousselin wrote: "It is now up to Congress to return to American democracy the dignity that was so seriously lost by the default of three other pillars [of the American system]: The chief executive in unbelievable conduct, a judicial apparatus at the mercy of an implacable prosecutor, and a fourth estate [the media] without self-restraint" (September 11, 1998). The columnist did not explain why he expected salvation to come, of all things, from Congress. Two days later, Charles Lambrosini added in the same paper: "The president may survive [this crisis] but his presidency is shattered (foudroyé)" (September 13, 1998).

Illusions of Parliamentary Government

One likely source for their distaste may be misunderstandings based on the different governmental structures that we and they tend to take for granted, particularly in the relations between the national executive and the legislature. Europeans know that we have a separation of powers between Congress and the president-which none of them have-and we know that most of them have some form of parliamentary government in which prime ministers are elected and dismissed by a majority of the lower house of parliament. Optimally, prime ministers are in command of both parliament and the executive branch, quite different from the role of the self-sufficient Congress, which was described by Lexington in the Economist as "a bunch of men and women of extraordinary pomposity, as windbagged as the worst Welshman, unable to raise their sights above the most mundane concerns of their local constituents, and generally mildly corrupt . . . a 'permanent government,' made up of incumbents with a rate of reelection that made them look like the noblemen of the ancient regime . . . now, if only they would reintroduce spittoons" (June 26, 1993).

minister, cabinet, and parliamentary majority almost invariably belong to the same party or coalition.

Misreading American Presidential Government

How, then, might European observers have been misled to erroneous conclusions based on these structural differences? Parliamentary government differs from presidentialism with regard to (1) how executive authority is derived from the people, namely, by having only one national parliamentary election and through the mediating role of the newly elected parliament and partisan majorities in it; (2) the fusion of executive and legislative authority in parliamentary government (which was anathema to the founders of the Constitution); and (3) how to get rid of a duly (if indirectly) elected chief executive.

their tenure on congressional support? . He has persuaded Washington that what the voters wanted in 1994 was what he was proposing to do" (November 4, 1995). Other European observers were just as impressed if not as eloquent.

Europeans on Nixon's Impeachment

The third difference, how to bring down a duly-elected chief executive, naturally touches closely upon the question of impeachment and, as we shall see below, whether the Republican impeachment drive of 1998 amounted to an attempted coup d' état against Clinton's electoral mandate. In parliamentary systems, prime ministers generally lose their posts in more or less the same fashion they gain them: in two-party systems, it is usually by being defeated in an election in which the incumbents have to defend what they did with their original mandate from the voters, or how they dealt with new crises and major challenges. Typically, recent French, German, and British governments were toppled by elections that cost them their majorities. Successful parliamentary no-confidence votes have become rare since political parties have become so disciplined, but they may still occur in a coalition government. In the 1970s, for example, Labour prime minister James Callahan of Britain was toppled by the unexpected departure of Scottish Nationalist MPs. His reaction reportedly was: "This is the first time turkeys have voted for an early Christmas." Recent Italian governments fell when one or more of the coalition parties walked out over an important issue, and the same happened to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany in 1982 when the Free Democrats left his coalition and embraced Helmut Kohl instead. Behind closed doors, moreover, a prime minister or chancellor may sometimes be persuaded by his own party leaders to resign because his actions have disgraced his party. An example might be Anthony Eden's resignation in 1956 following the failed Suez invasion, or Willy Brandt's resignation in 1974 because of a spy scandal. In some ways this resembles, in our own rather different system, the resignation of Richard Nixon in the Watergate affair, when senior Republican congressional leaders prevailed upon him not to wait for his removal by the Senate.

a menace to the survival or integrity of the state itself.

The American Way of Dumping a President

The American method of expelling a chief executive considered a danger to the state is indeed archaic and was abandoned in England after the 1787-1795 impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first governor general of British India. It was still used frequently in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century England, also in the American colonies and in the Jeffersonian era, but never against a chief executive or a president until after the Civil War. Today, European observers balk particularly at its curious mixture of judicial and political elements which, in their opinions, was used as a continual dodge by the Republican impeachment drive of 1998. On the website of the French left-wing paper Libération, for example, questions about the confusing mixture of the two dominated an interview conducted by its correspondent, Jacques Sabatier, with an American constitutional expert, Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University and of the New Yorker. Leading off the questions were: "Is the [impeachment] process essentially political or juridical?" (answer: both) and "How does it relate to the juridical norms of American courts?" (only in part); followed by "What is the significance of having the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court . . . preside over the [Senate] proceedings" (none) and "Can the Senate acquit the president of a [dubious] perjury charge even when it is not contested?" (yes). Whenever such rarefied legal charges as "perjury," "subornation of perjury," or "obstruction of justice" were challenged by the president's lawyers as unproven or nearly unprovable in a court of law, as European observers trained in their own respective legal systems would note, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the Republican ultras on the House Judiciary Committee and elsewhere withdrew into the political realm and claimed that impeachment was a political matter after all. The Starr Report, jeered the liberal Guardian of London, had "made no attempt to present the whole [legal] truth, but gone straight for his man . . . this is not a criminal process and . . . not subject to conventional rules and safeguards [of the much-invoked rule of law]" (September 15, 1998).

skeptical. "It was a little white lie," according to Bacharan.2 The second error was to conflate a criminal suspicion, regarding Whitewater-Madison Guaranty, with obviously noncriminal conduct, the Lewinsky affair, which even the alleged white lie could not turn into a crime.3

press conferences, on television, and under oath before Congress.

the individual by precisely balancing the [governmental] powers."9 Her vacillations in the end served the worst purposes of the witch hunt for the president and the public exposure of decades of his private life.

Defending the Constitution

There is a very obvious reason why impeachment as a means of banishing an elected president has been used so rarely in the 200-some years of the republic: As with all elective offices, the logical remedy for a poor choice of elected officer lies in not reelecting the person, a correction not available, for example, with regard to federal judges or executive officers below the president. Especially in contrast to the shadow cast by the unimpeachable King George III upon the constitutional deliberations in Philadelphia in 1787, the remedy of impeachment was added only because, in the interval of a four-year term and surrounded as the young republic was by powerful empires with likely designs on it, a president might have been tempted to betray the nation's integrity or independence, to be bribed to commit treasonable actions, or to jeopardize the safety and integrity of the new federal state with "high crimes and misdemeanors" against this state. This was the emergency for which the impeachment process was inserted into the Constitution. The framers must have turned in their graves to learn the twisted interpretation given to their language by the impeachment advocates of 1998-1999. To quote Republican John Dean Nixon's counsel who, back in Watergate days, had turned against his president: "[Previous impeachment proceedings] stand in stark contrast to the we-don't-give-a-damn treatment of President Clinton by the Republicans now running the show" (U.S. News and World Report, December 21, 1998).

parliamentary arrangement, in other words.

presidential immunity to civil suits, such as that of Paula Jones, while a president is in office, thereby setting the tracks for the impeachment caper of 1998-1999.

Even less that the people's representatives made this calumny available to the whole world via Internet" (February 11, 1999). Notes

1. Nicole Bacharan, Le Piège: Quand le democratie perd la tête . . . (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1999), 69.
2. Ibid., 91.
3. Ibid., 94-95.
4. Jeffrey Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President (New York: Random House, 2000), 190.
5. Ibid., 195.
6. Ibid., 204.
7. Bacharan., 70-71.
8. Toobin, 116-117.

—From A Coup Attempt in Washington? By Peter H. Merkl. (c) 2001, Palgrave USA used by permission

Table of Contents

• The Prelude, 1994-1997
• A Coup Attempt in Washington?
• Europeans on Sex, Lies, and Audiotapes
• Democracy and the Media Conspiracy
• Conclusions

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Coup Attempt in Washington: A European Mirror on Our Recent Constitutional Crisis 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author looks at how the Europeans viewed the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Somewhat dissatisfying; it felt somehow incomplete, but I can't remember why.